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ASPIRE program seeks volunteers with variety of backgrounds to mentor high school students

COURTESY PHOTO - A group of Forest Grove High School students recently stopped by the schools College and Career Center to learn more about post-graduation possibilities. (Back row, L-R) Katie Rebsom, Emma Calouri, Drake Littlefield, Luis Flores-Cruz, Sam Riley, Elijah Peters, Ricky Ruhl, Tanner Mannen and (front row) Ellie Brewer.When Rebecca Kelsay inquired about college scholarships as a Forest Grove High School senior in 2010, someone pointed to a large bin of brochures in the school counseling office.

That wasn't very helpful, said Kelsay, who's hoping a new program will offer more guidance to students lost in the sea of choices about life after high school.

As the Forest Grove High School ASPIRE coordinator, Kelsay is hoping to recruit hundreds of volunteers to pair up with students at her alma mater.

ASPIRE (which is not an acronym) aims to help young people reach their post-graduation goals, whether that means a four-year university, technical school, the military or an entry-level job with promotion potential.

Ideally, ASPIRE volunteers would meet with high school students once a week to discuss college applications, scholarship opportunities, technical school options, job opportunities — or whatever else they need help with.

While she admires FGHS counselors' work, Kelsay said, it just isn't possible for five counselors to give nearly 2,000 students the one-on-one attention a volunteer mentor can: about student-specific scholarship information and where to find applications; assistance with writing essays; and reminders for upcoming deadlines, for example.

Students are not required to sign up for the program but instead actively seek out mentors.

"So these kids are excited for this," Kelsay said. "They're not going to be begrudgingly showing up."

Overwhelming options

Kelsay's position is funded by Measure 98. Passed by voters in 2016, the measure designates money for initiatives designed to increase graduation rates and improve high school students' college and career readiness.

Kelsay hopes volunteers will inspire students to consider all their options. Some students never consider college because they don't think it will be affordable, she said. But volunteer mentors might illuminate grants and scholarships students didn't know existed, including the state's Oregon Promise program, which offers two years at Portland Community College free of charge.

Volunteer Jose Cazares, for example, started out his time at FGHS in the English-language development program, learning English and taking low-level classes. He worked his way up to more rigorous coursework, but still worried he wouldn't be able to afford a higher education as a first-generation college student.

That's when a FGHS social worker told him about Warner Pacific College's Act Six Scholarship, which covers the cost of tuition. Cazares applied for it and won.

"That made a huge difference in my life," said Cazares, who now works as an enrollment counselor for Warner Pacific.

ASPIRE volunteer and current Pacific University student Abby Schmidt is another first-generation, four-year college student who felt overwhelmed by the multitude of college options and the application process, as well as finding a college volleyball program.

"I almost didn't apply," said Schmidt, who remembers only one mandatory seminar on the topic when she was at FGHS. Other than that, "we didn't receive much information on college," she said.

Now she's hoping to take the mystery and fear out of the application process for her mentees. And as an education and learning major, she hopes to get insight into what students need.

College not only option

Kelsay knows college isn't the only option for students. "We live in such a college culture, but it's not for everyone, especially with the potentially crippling debt," said Kelsay, who hopes the ASPIRE program will also help destigmatize non-college options.

The roughly 15 people who have committed to volunteer so far run the gamut, including parents, tradesman, retired folks and Pacific students.

"Whatever your story, you have something valuable to share," Kelsay said. "If you genuinely care about students, you'll be a great fit."

At this point, Kelsay is matching up students with volunteers on a first-come-first-serve basis. Some students have said they're interested in computer science, others in medical professions or the military. Some have special skills they'd like to find a market for such as sign-language or fluency in Spanish.

"We want a volunteer to pair with every student, but we're not there yet," Kelsay said.

She doesn't want to turn down any students who apply, however, so she's dedicating much of her part-time position to networking through colleges, district school board members, community organizations and local businesses, trying to garner enough support to get the program off the ground.

Even people who can't volunteer an hour every week can add to the program, Kelsay said. If someone can only give one hour every few months, she might pair them up with a freshman who is just starting to think about their future and doesn't need as much intensive mentoring.

"Having that time to set aside and think about their future is important," Kelsay said. "Having just one person who is interested in their future can be really powerful."

Support for mentors

Cazares remembers those mentors he found at FGHS in after-school programs and other arenas who helped him learn everything from tying a tie to filling out the Federal Application For Student Aid (FAFSA). Cazares said he was so overwhelmed by the FAFSA he almost didn't fill out the Act Six scholarship application.

That's why he's coming back to volunteer. "There might not be one right thing to do but there are many things we can do right that will help our community grow," said Cazares, who now wants to help people find what they're passionate about. "Education is the gateway to dreams, really."

Those who are interested need not feel fluent in mentoring, applications, scholarships, essay writing or anything else. Kelsay will provide volunteer trainings along with a list of resources. "There are no prerequisites for this," Kelsay said.

People who aren't comfortable working one-on-one with students can help in other ways, like making volunteer packets.

Mentors and mentees will meet at FGHS during the school day, between 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.

More information can be found at https://sites.google.com/fgsd.k12.or.us/aspire. Those who are interested can also contact Kelsay at 503-359-2432 ext. 3506 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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